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Power and bullying: Parliament’s ugly underside

In this personal essay, former Alliance MP Phillida Bunkle reveals the ugly underside of funding, power and bullying during her time at Parliament

Eighteen years after I left Parliament in 2002, little, if anything, has changed to make the parliamentary work place safer. There is currently a meltdown across Parliament involving five Serious Fraud Office Investigations into the funding of political parties and an escalating number of complaints concerning serious personal abuse.

How political parties intersect with parliamentary structures and  processes is the key to understanding the current bewildering malaise. Effective reform depends upon understanding the relationship between the misuse of parliamentary funds and the culture of bullying it supports.

Before I left Parliament, I laid documentary evidence before the three organisations legally responsible for the its operation. My evidence showed the culture of rampant bullying was maintained by a regime of misappropriation of public money and mis-accounting of party funds.

I have chosen to tell my story now in the hope of supporting urgent change - because confusion and cynicism are breathing life into the politics of reaction.

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My experience as an Alliance Party MP from 1996-2002 was that harassment of many kinds was endemic within parliamentary political parties. The party was destroyed by bullying from within - and provides a cautionary tale of how misuse of money, much of it public, can support a destructive political culture of bullying, intimidation and abuse.

When MMP was introduced in 1996, it placed political parties on the ballot and therefore into a central constitutional role. But, legally, they remain private clubs with their own rules and procedures.

Our political structures were adapted in limited ways to accommodate MMP. The Parliamentary Commission was established in 2000 to provide "independent reviews of parliamentary appropriations". In 2001, the powers of the Comptroller and Auditor General were enhanced to conduct and report audits of parliamentary expenditure.

But what, legally, are parties? What are the parameters of their legitimate action? And who is responsible for the conduct of their staff?

 
 

Together, National and Labour structured the finances of the first MMP Parliament to maintain their dominance. MMP retained existing local constituency seats but installed a layer of far less generously funded, overworked list MPs representing important national constituencies. A third category, MPs in Māori seats do not receive funding to match their wide geographical responsibilities. The MMP promise of effective democracy involving newly-represented groups entering Parliament was aborted by these inequalities, and the culture of abuse which followed.

Legislation does not require that political parties are even minimally democratic. Indeed, there is no legal requirement for them to have any constitution at all. They do not have to produce annual reports, or have identifiable office holders. Even if parties have positions such as treasurers there are no legal requirements specifying how they are to be appointed, or how frequently or to whom they should report. For example, between 1999 and 2002 the Alliance Party had effectively no treasurer and no formal, let alone audited, annual financial reports.

In addition, there is no legal requirement for parties to have grievance procedures or codes of conduct for their office holders, employees or members. There  are no rules for "investigations" confected by private clubs; "due process" has no place in club land. The party-clubs make no laws for themselves even as they make the law of the land. As I was to find, political parties are not so much above, as beyond, the laws they create.

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In 1997, Alliance volunteers and paid party staffers were recorded on security cameras having sex on and around the Speaker's chair.

Sexual opportunism on the Speaker's sheepskin expressed blatant contempt for a symbol of Parliament’s power. It mocked the hopes of the people who had worked so hard to bring us to Parliament. As these newly-enabled staffers claimed the right to enter the culture of complicity wrapped around the political elite, their sense of sexual entitlement began to pervade the general work environment.

Alliance Party Leader Jim Anderton complained to fellow MPs about the cost of covering up such embarrassing incidents, but the ‘staffers’ involved were rather pleased with themselves. Their insouciant strutting continued unhindered.

I regarded Parliament as unsafe for some workers. I lobbied against young women being taken, sometimes for weeks, to distant locations where they were used, against Parliament’s rules, for party building or electionering. Alliance party officials scorned my "uncooperative" and "disloyal" attitudes. But I remained wary of situations similar to Labour’s 2017 residential ‘Interns’ or 2018 youth Summer Camp - both the subject of serious complaints.

It has taken me a long time to publicly describe the six years of persistent, unrelenting bullying I endured in Parliament. The memories themselves remain sharp and, indeed, indelible.

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Parliamentary employment is insecure. MPs and their staff work in a volatile, highly adversarial environment. It was not always clear to the employee who they were employed by. Employees sign a contact with either the Parliamentary or Ministerial Service but are usually selected by, and expected to work for, a specific MP.  This ambiguity makes employment law of limited value in restraining abuse. The explosive political consequences of disclosure, and the probable adverse impact on future employment, ensure that few, if any, complaints about abuse and bullying in Parliament reach the Employment Court.

During my time as an Alliance MP, payments were made to various staff including one of about $42,000 and others of more than $100,000. Payment does not come from the MPs or the party’s budget, but is paid with public money usually in return for a Non Disclosure Agreement. Abuse carried no costs to the abusers, and a very small risk of adverse publicity.

The Alliance, formed in 1991 from five minor parties, had enjoyed considerable success.  It had an active, committed membership four or five times that of the Labour Party. It won two constituency seats and pushed Labour into third place in two by-elections For a time, it looked possible that it might replace Labour. In the 1993 general election the Alliance won 10 percent of the total vote. Under MMP another 11 list MPs were added in 1996.

Phillida Bunkle on her first day at Parliament in 1996.

But it only took six years for determined staffers and their chosen MPs to unpick the bright prospects of a party of 13 MPs explicitly committed to rejecting the neoliberal juggernaut and its inevitable toxic inequality.

My partner, Dr. John Lepper, was told on two separate occasions by different senior Treasury officials that two of the players most active in undermining Alliance MPs were CIA.

The bullying began the moment I arrived in Parliament in 1996. 

As we arrived in the hopeful new caucus, leader Jim Anderton poured verbal abuse on those not associated with a Faction of MPs and Party officials. This Faction pursued an ambitious entryist strategy of infiltration aimed at taking over the Alliance Party organisation and its leadership. They cultivated a superior, cult-like doctrinal purity. Some had cut their political teeth in marginal socialist organisations. Their political energies were mainly directed at destroying those occupying similar political ground. They recruited staunch, politically inexperienced, young people as their foot soldiers. Aiming always at the leadership, the Faction used misinformation, rumour and sometimes lies to weaken other MPs and their social democrat constituent parties. Magical thinking induced the Faction to believe that it would inherit the vote of the MPs and other Alliance parties they disabled

I was a particular target. The Faction undermined both my close relationship with Anderton and with the Greens, my constituent party, which the Faction perceived to be their most significant competitor.

The Faction’s tactics matched their long term ambition. Once in Parliament they manoeuvred to control the money pooled from the ‘donations’ made by all Alliance MPs with publicly provided money. They directed this money to building up Faction members while denying resources to other MPs and the other parties making up the Alliance. Anderton supported this pooling strategy in the belief that it would consolidate his own power. He failed to understand, until much too late, that his leadership was the Faction’s ultimate target.

Funding battles devoured the party’s time and energy. When the smart, indefatigable Pam Corkery left after one term, she connected the chaos "within the party" and its "bullying style and manipulative control" to inordinate salary deductions and demands that MPs "pay the cost of party conferences and fund wages for party organisers".

The new Alliance caucus was the first in any developed democracy to have more that 50 percent women MPs. The first public action of the new caucus was collective support for Gay Pride. Our optimism for a new inclusiveness was swiftly eclipsed by hyper-masculine party power players.

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Bullies start with the weakest first and work their way up,

Alamein Kopu was the first MP to go. I was too inexperienced to understand that this was the intention of Anderton’s denigration of her mana in the new caucus. Alamein withdrew from the Alliance, leaving her parliamentary resources behind but weakening Mana Motuhake, her constituent party.

I was patron of Te Pikinga AIO, an organisation aiming to restore respect for Māori women. I challenged Anderton: how could trashing a person’s mana build a robust organisation?

Why had we come to Parliament if it wasn’t to take a stand? A stand for the unemployed, a stand for the poor, for sick people and carers, for beneficiaries, for workers and women and Māori, disabled people, gay people and the environment and for fair, sustainable taxes to protect the health of our planet. That bullying 1996 caucus violated every principle on which I believed I had stood for election.

Frank Grover, leader of another Alliance constituent party, was the next target. Within three years, five of the 11 Alliance MPs elected in 1996 were gone. With what Press Officer John Pagani described despairingly as the Faction’s ‘purge, purge and purge again’ strategy it would take another three years to remove them all.

By  2001 when only two Faction MPs were left they turned on each other and by the next year, the Alliance was gone.

How furious the remnants must have been to find nine Green bottles still, miraculously, hanging on the parliamentary wall after 2002.

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Sandra Lee observed that in the Alliance, “No good deed goes unpunished”. As the Faction’s insidious flow of misinformation gathered force I would be routinely called into Anderton’s office.

I would hold Anderton’s gaze, watching as his red wattle slowly rose and throbbed above his collar, while I mentally counted backwards from 100. After 10 times, I hummed to myself until he calmed down.

But Anderton’s invective range was not large. By the time the puffed-up red had reached the sharp grooming line of his hair, the shouting was usually reduced to some version of “Look in the mirror and Man UP!”

Jim Anderton and Phillida Bunkle in late 2000 after controversy over her use of a ministerial apartment in the capital. Photo: Getty Images

Sensing a limit, I was intimidated but not afraid.  “Man Up!” seemed touchingly absurd rather than terrifying. Once his vanity was appeased and his sense of control restored, Anderton would sometimes become Jim again, warmly remembering we had keynoted his 1989, 1990, 1993 and 1994 launches together. Jim especially liked to reminisce that the turning point of his successful 1990 re-election campaign was when I and a local group attracted 300 enthusiastic women to an overflow public meeting.

Jim had many gifts. He was a consummate public speaker - to men. In 1993, I travelled straight from a large, fun, centennial suffrage lunch to keynote the launch of Jim’s 1993 campaign. I laughingly displayed the huge gold-paper ‘suffrage medal’ I had just been ‘awarded’ by some very respectable Wellington women. They had howled with laughter when told that Mrs. Bolger had received an official ‘Women’s Suffrage’ medal from the Prime Minister for having eight of his children, while he had awarded himself a medal, presumably in recognition of his role as sperm donor. Jim Anderton was not amused and was still fuming when we arrived back at his house. He did not confess that he had awarded his allocation of three medals to nuns.

I had enjoyed the 1993 election campaign. But as I climbed out of the silence of a failed marriage, Jim’s life slipped into accumulating distress. Staying at his home during the Selwyn by-election in 1994 it became clear that he was under immense personal pressure. Jim stepped down from the leadership in November 1994; He returned in May 1995. He was once again a lonely figure, but by this time more closely surrounded by those determined to tighten their grip on his future.

It wasn't until 1998 that I made a formal complaint. I was given documents showing that, in the five years from 1993, a senior party staffer had in addition to his salary made thousands of dollars of purchases including cinema tickets, restaurants, flowers and the Sydney Opera House on the Alliance Party’s bank card. At this very time, members, often poor themselves, were put under constant pressure to raise more and more money.

I was incensed that the little donations, the small raffles, the thin sandwiches, the scrapings of dedicated party members were being spent on The Shopping Channel. I was angry that the during the years that I couch-surfed the country as Alliance Health spokesperson resisting the devastating health reforms, money from the party’s limited funds had been spent to support lifestyle enhancement for a party functionary.

I made an unsuccessful and badly-judged attempt to raise this issue with the party’s ruling council. I provided copies of the bank accounts to the Grievance Committee and described the denigration and abuse I was experiencing. But retrospective ‘adjustments’, backdating the party’s accounts to October 1993, had already been accepted.

The staffer repaid some but, by December 1998, the party faced a shortfall which Anderton met by a ‘loan’ to the Party of more than $6,000.

The Grievance Committee noted I had “challenged the environment and culture in the Alliance office organisation” claiming it was “dysfunctional” and “oppressive”. But in its report it said that it did not "see its role’ as 'being to explore this" culture.

In revenge, party officials demanded that I engage one of the prime participants in sex games on the Speaker’s Chair on my small remaining parliamentary budget; placing me in legal jeopardy for breaking the rules keeping party and Parliament funding separate and deriding my calls for a safe, constructive, workplace.

I turned to the Parliamentary Service, as the formal employer,  to run a fair and open process of appointment and ensure a legal contract.

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Payback was swift. In 1999, I was at my desk working late one night, my back to my open office door, when I caught a reflection in the dark window of a figure in the doorway behind me.

I swivelled my chair and stood to face a raging party figure. He crashed the flat of his hand on the door frame and said that I was "just not tough enough to survive in the job”.

There was no security camera in my corner of the building. No one else was working so late on my floor. No witnesses. The telephone was now behind me.

He moved further into the office and thumped my desk. "Don’t," he said, walking away, "think you have a future."

I talked to his employer, the Parliamentary Service. They brought the head of Parliamentary security to see me.  But security is geared to protecting MPs from the outside rather than attack from within. They declined my request to install a panic button and increase after-hours camera surveillance. Years later, panic buttons were installed in MPs’ out of Parliament offices. But these are to protect staff from attack by voters, rather than MPs from attacks by staff or staff from attacks by MPs.

Summoned to Anderton’s office. I was charged with complaining to Parliamentary security that I had been subjected me to violent gestures, including the personpunching his fist on my table. My unwarranted attacks had to stop, and stop now.

Invincibility has its own peculiar stiff stance. Anderton stood in the centre; my alleged assailant, now my alleged victim, on my left and another MP to the right.

There was, they said, "no evidence". They had made an inspection of my office and there was no table.

Anderton explained that the problem was personality - only someone "over sensitive" and prone to exaggeration would make such baseless allegations.

Since there was no substance to my allegations, they were concerned about my overheated mind. I was just not up to the job.  I was unsuited to Parliament. I was out of touch with reality. 

Today, it is known as gaslighting.

Fatherly now, almost avuncular, Anderton added ’‘You would be  very unwise to take this further. We have made allowances up to now…."

The character assassination that followed would focus on my alleged instability. "Flaky Phillida"  "would ensure no-one would believe me when the time came. My public humiliation was well planned and made cruel use of a long-running family health crisis.

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But for someone apparently so weak and unstable I was not so completely disposable - not yet. There was an election to be fought in 1999.  They would deal to me afterwards. The Faction was jostling to replace the leader. By endorsing the culture of abuse, Anderton misread the actual threats to his own position.

After the ’99 election, Anderton, now Deputy Prime Minister, announced the merger of the remaining constituent parties of the Alliance under what he imagined would be his control. The only resistance came from the remnants of the Democrats, Mana Motuhake and me.

Mana Motuhake evaporated after a leadership coup. The leader of the Democrats protested to Anderton that a  "deliberate attack on myself and the Democrats …has the tacit approval of both the Leader and the Chairman.” He was easily fixed; they simply stripped his remaining resources.

That left me: I had been re-elected by the membership to the Alliance Council. I advocated designated capped allowances for party officials, an approved process of appointing a treasurer, annual financial reports of all party accounts and an audit process. These standards were never met.

The Faction needed hand-picked loyalists and control of the money to mount their planned challenge to the leadership.

It seems obvious that an organisation that allows a culture of abuse to flourish has a limited future. The party membership was confused; many wanted to support me. Unleashing such destructiveness in the interests of absolute control means that the energies that support the organisation will fade away. Without a bottom line, its remnants will look around one day and find no one but themselves there. Unless of course they find themselves another source of funding or perhaps another unsuspecting party, or discover their destiny in a church?

While I had no political future, I wondered how I could best ensure that the policies I cared about would continue to be articulated. The Alliance Party was doomed; but I hoped that general reform might come from the agencies legally responsible for oversight of Parliament’s expenditure and behaviour.

I made three attempts to deal with bullying, harassment and illegality through the agencies with legal responsibility for the conduct of the Parliament.  I put before all of them documentary evidence that political culture had been subverted by unaccountable, unrestrained bullying, protected by a party funded with public money. I went only to the legally responsible agencies. I did not leak or go public because my goal was reform not destruction. I was seeking to end, not extend, the destruction of the left.

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The First Triennial Review of Appropriations for Parliamentary Purposes was set up in 2000 to monitor the parliamentary implications of the change to proportional representation. The Review assured MPs it would "consult with and obtain the views of as many members as possible."  It aimed to ensure the development  of "principles to distinguish parliamentary business from other political activity that ought not to be funded from the public purse."

It promised an official mechanism to consider these critical but obscure issues.

I concluded my submission with evidence that a large, unspent, surplus of public funds had been returned directly to the Alliance Party and some used to fund an Auckland mayoral campaign. Since this was prima facie wrong, as Stan Rodger, the chair of the review affirmed at the time, I believed the committee would be alarmed.

Tipped off by an informer who had been placed in my office, Anderton had, however, successfully countered my evidence by offering  the Alliance for a trial of pooling which the review enthusiastically endorsed.

When the report, Resourcing Parliament, was published in 2002, it endorsed pooling or budget-holding, as Treasury called it, but was unable to recommend implementation, because no way could be found of ensuring parties acted as ‘responsible employers’!

The review neglected to mention any safeguards and expressed no concerns about the critical issue of the effects of party budget holding on the status of MPs and their role as representatives.

Much of the current malaise of political culture can be traced back to this failure.

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Possibly the Alliance was not alone. In 2001 a minute from Labour’s  governing executive was leaked to me showing that both Labour and National had fiddled their election expenses and collaborated in a post-election fix-up. 

I sought advice from the Clerk of the House about the Alliance funding and explained the connection to systemic bullying.  This material was leaked back to Anderton.

Before I left Parliament, in 2002, I sent the Comptroller and Auditor General copies of the Alliance documents including the list of the more incriminating digital items stored on the parliamentary computer - and I placed a copy in my lawyer’s safe.

I watched, without surprise, the Alliance disintegrate.

I departed on an extended overseas speaking tour focusing on women’s health issues.  While still overseas I received an email from my lawyer passing on the Auditor’s thanks, and acknowledging the legitimacy of my concerns. My lawyer told me Anderton’s office had been very seriously worried but a full investigation was not launched because the critical evidence was no longer accessible.

The auditor did however give an assurance he would in future take a closer look at how political parties used public funds.

Anderton had a near miss with the auditor but learnt a lesson. After the 2005 election, the auditor fulfilled his promise to monitor parliamentary funds. Anderton’s party was the only one in Parliament not found to have mis-spent public money.

The Electoral Commission referred Labour to the police who found "there was sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case" but  “decided not to lay a prosecution, preferring instead to warn…that similar future offences would risk prosecution.”

No party need have worried. A law retrospectively validating “all types of spending under the Parliamentary Service budget for MPs' support going back to 1989” was rushed into law.  When all the affected parties, except New Zealand First, repaid more than $1million, it looked done and dusted.

Eighteen years after I left the Parliament, New Zealand still has unresolved, comprehensive complaints about out-of-control staffers, abusive MPs, and multiple fraud investigations into party funding. Most importantly, there is still avoidance of the depth or seriousness of New Zealand’s culture of bullying and abuse by and within the country’s most powerful institutions. In particular, there has still been no investigation of the links between the control of public money and endemic bullying.

I took so much more into Parliament than I took with me when I left. I am saddened to think this pattern might now repeat itself in the lives of other young people with much to contribute to New Zealand’s public life.

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